Kid-Friendly Vegan Entrées

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD

Portable, colorful, fun, crunchy, creamy, different/same as yesterday and adaptable! These are just some of the characteristics of foods we offer our household "customers" — children. One day cabbage is supreme... the next day "I never eat cabbage." One week everything will be accepted as long as it goes with ketchup, and the next week, "I never want to see ketchup again." Throw in, "I'm hungry now," "Josh and Bryana's mother said it's fine for them to stay for dinner," "It's our turn to have the soccer team for dinner tonight," or "Band practice is going to be early/late, so I need to eat in 15 minutes/three hours," and we've got some cooking challenges to meet!

You can have kids participate in menu planning, shopping, and preparation. This can be very helpful. There are many websites that offer meal planning forms. These can be printed and written by hand or saved on the computer. (For example, see: For lower tech planning, a good old chalk board, white board, or an easel with paper are useful tools for planning meals and creating food shopping lists.

Our mini household catering will be successful as long as we plan our shopping. Start keeping an inventory of the items needed and amounts used. This lets you know how much of which items you need to purchase to have a variety of meals available in just a few minutes.

For example, if you stock up on bagels, tortillas, pizza crusts, and even prepared whole grain pancakes or waffles (make extra when preparing these and freeze until needed), you can whip up hot or cold entrées in a jiffy. Baked white or sweet potatoes can be used as an entrée one night, and then cut into salads or soups for several days. The same applies to having two types of low-sodium cooked beans (canned or frozen are fine), hummus, salsa, a variety of frozen fruits and veggies (fresh in season, of course), and another protein of choice, such as firm tofu, seitan, or tempeh.

For example, you can make "succotash" potatoes by topping a baked russet potato with a lot of lima beans, a small amount of corn, some kidney beans for color, and then flavorings of choice! Baked sweet potatoes can be topped with baked beans and a small amount of pineapple for a sweeter entrée.

In addition to pleasing the aesthetic (I'm only eating purple food today.) and taste (No onions!) requirements of our young "customers," we want to include calcium, vitamin B12, iron, and the whole vitamin and mineral "rainbow." As much as possible, try to use a variety of ingredients every day. To include lots of nutrient-dense ingredients, as well as to gain acceptance for a variety of foods, use minced or finely diced veggies for crunch and color, carrots and beets for sweetness, chopped oranges or limes for tang, and puréed silken tofu or puréed creamed corn for a creamy texture.

Having a buffet of condiments and garnishes is very helpful; it may be that just as many nutrients are obtained from fresh salsa, hummus, steamed edamame, black or kidney beans, chopped nuts, chopped fresh veggies or dried fruit, nutritional yeast, or pickled veggies as from the actual entrée. Stock the refrigerator and pantry with condiments and garnishes that have a fairly long shelf-life, so that perishable items such as chopped parsley or minced orange segments don't go to waste.

Yes, this does mean some pre-prep work, so you'll need to pencil in some cooking time one afternoon or evening a week. Baked tofu can be mildly spiced and frozen so it can be used as "mushroom steaks" one night, then served with pasta or rice and tomato sauce another night, or minced and tossed with salsa to top a salad or bagel, or rolled into a tortilla for another night. And, of course, use leftovers for lunch!

We know how versatile cooked beans can be: in a chili or soup one night, topping a pizza crust another night, or mixed with hot or cold pasta the next evening. To create some fast sauces, place soft silken tofu and tomato sauce or cooked beets (purple sauce!) in a blender. These sauces can be served hot or cold. Creamed corn (which is corn kernels with cornstarch, no dairy) can be blended by itself, with a small amount of hummus and water (you decide on the thickness), or with tomato sauce or salsa and served over steamed grains. Then use some cooked beans, edamame, or nuts as a topping.

"Build a meal" is what restaurants use, and it can work at home with a bit of shopping and preparation planning. Have a base entrée with a miniature buffet. For example, by serving savory baked tofu with a choice of two or three condiments (ketchup, mustard, fruit sauce, salsa, etc.) and some toppings, you allow your children choice and some feeling of independence.

Baked Garbanzos

(Serves 4-6)

No time to bake traditional slow-baked beans? This recipe is an excellent alternative! Serve on its own with a side salad or with crumbled tofu, veggie crumbles, or chopped nuts. You can also serve this over cooked grains or toasted wheat bread.

  • 4 cups cooked garbanzos (if using canned, drain and rinse)
  • 1 ½ cups prepared no-salt-added tomato sauce
  • ¼ cup maple syrup, apple juice concentrate, or agave
  • ½ cup minced sweet onion
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon ginger powder

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a 2-quart (8 cups) baking dish and cover. Bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly. Check once; if it appears drier than you'd like, add a small amount (about ¼ cup) water or apple juice. Serve hot.

Total calories per serving: 362 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 67 grams Protein: 16 grams
Sodium: 25 milligrams Fiber: 14 grams

Breaded and Baked Tofu

(Serves 4-6)

Bill these as "tofu nuggets" or "mini tofu steaks" and serve with your child's favorite sauce for a hot or cold entrée. Can also be used for a TLT (tofu, lettuce and tomato) sandwich (see below).

  • 1 ½ cups extra-firm tofu (about 16 ounces)
  • ¼ cup cornmeal
  • ¼ cup whole wheat flour or matzo meal
  • ¼ cup dry breadcrumbs
  • 2 Tablespoons seasoning mixture of your choice, such as Mrs. Dash Southwest blend
  • Vegetable oil spray

Drain tofu but do not dry on towels; we need enough moisture to allow coating to stick. Slice tofu into 12-16 equal pieces.

Combine cornmeal, flour or matzo meal, breadcrumbs, and seasoning mix in a bowl. Place half of mixture on a dinner plate. Place tofu pieces on dry mixture and turn to coat. Use reserved coating if extra is needed. Place coated tofu in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes (can be in the refrigerator for up to 8 hours).

You have two choices for cooking: either spray a frying pan with oil and fry, turning, until tofu is golden and crunchy, or preheat oven to 375 degrees, spray baking sheet with oil, and bake tofu in a single layer about 20 minutes or until crunchy and golden. Serve with barbecue sauce, favorite salad dressing, salsa, or creamy corn sauce (blended creamed corn).

Serve hot or allow to cool and refrigerate until ready to use. Can be reheated in a hot oven or microwave.

Note: Smoked tofu or flavored seitan or tempeh may be used in place of the firm tofu. If you have the time, this can also be done with par-cooked russet potatoes (sliced lengthwise).

Total calories per serving: 187 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 19 grams Protein: 14 grams
Sodium: 59 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Entrée Macaroni Salad

(Serves 4-6)

This is a versatile dish, mild or spicy — let your kids' preference help in selecting the dressing of choice.

  • 1 cup dressing of your choice (salad dressing, pesto, hummus, salsa, vegan mayonnaise, etc.)
  • 4 cups cooked, cooled macaroni (start with 2 cups of uncooked macaroni)
  • 1 ½ cups chopped fresh tomatoes, or drained, canned no-salt-added tomatoes
  • ½ cup minced celery
  • ½ cup minced carrots
  • ¼ cup diced pickles (if desired)
  • 2 cups protein of choice (crumbled extra-firm tofu, cooked beans, garbanzos, seitan, veggie crumbles, etc.)

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Cover and allow to cool in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This salad will last in the refrigerator for about 2-3 days.

Total calories per serving: 416 Fat: 13 grams
Carbohydrates: 56 grams Protein: 22 grams
Sodium: 572 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Above calculated using reduced fat Italian dressing and crumbled extra-firm tofu.

How About Some Spaghetti Sauce?

(Makes about 6 cups or about twelve ½-cup servings)

A spaghetti sauce that is a "total" food… and freezes very well!

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 1 garlic clove, minced (or 1 Tablespoon garlic powder)
  • ½ cup minced carrot
  • 1 ½ cups thawed frozen, shelled edamame or fresh cooked, cooled edamame
  • 4 cups canned no-salt-added tomatoes (do not drain)
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Spray a large pot with oil, allow to heat, and add onions. Cook onions, stirring, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 more minute. Add carrots and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in edamame and allow to cook for an additional 3 minutes. Add in tomatoes and spices and allow to cook until heated, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

The texture will be your choice. You can use the sauce as is or take half of the sauce and blend in a blender or food processor, return to the pot, stir and allow to heat, or you may blend all the sauce for a very smooth sauce.

Serve over hot pasta or grains, baked or steamed potatoes, on pizza crust or a bagel, or use as a base for a tomato-vegetable stew.

Total calories per serving: 68 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 8 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 17 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Fruit Burgers

(Makes 4-6 burgers)

These burgers may just be off the beaten track enough to pique the curiosity of "selective" young eaters!

  • 2 ½ cups peeled, cored, grated green apples, under ripe pears, or a combination
  • ½ cup grated carrots or beets
  • ¾ cup finely chopped sweet onion
  • 2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup seeded and chopped bell pepper (green, red, or combined)
  • 2 cups cooked brown rice, barley, or quinoa
  • ½ cup ground rolled oats (oats can be ground in a food processor)
  • 1 Tablespoon nutritional yeast
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper (optional)
  • Vegetable oil spray

Squeeze some of the water from the apples or pears (don't want them soupy) and save the water. Place apples and/or pears, carrots/beets, onions, breadcrumbs, bell pepper, rice or other grain, 2 Tablespoons of oats, nutritional yeast, and pepper in a bowl and mix very well to combine. If mixture is too dry, add some of the apple and/or pear water.

Shape into patties (about ½ cup per patty, depending on the size you'd like). Roll patties in remaining oats to coat. Cover and place in refrigerator for at least one hour (can be left in refrigerator for up to 8 hours).

Either heat frying pan, spray with oil, and cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side, or preheat oven to 400 degrees, spray baking sheet with vegetable oil, and cook about 2 minutes per side, or until golden brown.

Refrigerate or freeze until ready to use and serve burgers hot or cool.

Notes: If onions are not desired, an equivalent amount of apples, carrots, or beets may be used instead. If it is not convenient to grind oats, seasoned dried breadcrumbs or matzo meal may be substituted.

Total calories per serving: 426 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 83 grams Protein: 14 grams
Sodium: 414 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams

Eggplant "Meatballs"

(Serves 4-6)

These do take some time to make, but they freeze very well and can be re-heated in minutes! This mixture can also be used to make burgers or a veggie loaf.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • ¾ cup finely chopped onions
  • 3 cups peeled, diced eggplant
  • ½ cup soft silken tofu
  • ½ cup sesame seeds
  • 3 cups dry breadcrumbs
  • ½ cup nutritional yeast
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
  • 1 Tablespoon dried parsley
  • 1 Tablespoon dried oregano
  • ½ cup rinsed, chopped fresh basil or fresh spinach

Spray a large frying pan with vegetable oil and sauté onions about 5 minutes, until translucent. Add eggplant and sauté 8-10 minutes, until eggplant is soft, spraying more oil if needed to keep eggplant from sticking.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place tofu in a large bowl. Add eggplant mixture and sesame seeds. Place one cup of this mixture in a food processor and process until coarsely chopped (you are looking for a mixture that can be rolled into balls). Placed processed eggplant into a bowl, mix in remaining ingredients until well combined. Refrigerate for at least one hour (can be refrigerated for up to 8 hours).

Spray baking sheet with oil. If mixture is too thick to roll into balls, add a small amount of cold water. If the mixture is not thick enough to roll into balls, more breadcrumbs or matzo meal may be added. Shape eggplant mixture into balls, about 2 Tablespoons per ball. Place on baking sheet. Spray the balls lightly with oil. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve hot with pasta or rice, or cool and refrigerate or freeze until needed.

Note: To initially freeze eggplant balls, place on a baking sheet in a single layer. Once frozen, place balls in an air tight container. To reheat, place frozen balls (do not allow to thaw) on a non-stick baking sheet and heat for approximately 10 minutes at 400 degrees or microwave until hot inside.

Total calories per serving: 563 Fat: 18 grams
Carbohydrates: 78 grams Protein: 28 grams
Sodium: 612 milligrams Fiber: 14 grams

TLT: Tofu, Lettuce, and Tomato!

(Serves 1)

This is fast to make and you can use bread, buns, bagels, tortillas, or wraps to complete the sandwich!

  • 4 ounces (½ cup) tofu, tempeh, smoked tofu, or seitan
  • 2 teaspoons low-salt soy sauce
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 2 Romaine lettuce leaves or about 8 fresh spinach leaves
  • 2 tomato slices
  • 2 teaspoons dressing of choice (mustard, salsa, vegan mayo)
  • 2 slices whole grain bread or another bread of choice

Cut tofu or other protein choice into thin strips and toss with soy sauce. (If you have the time, allow to marinate in soy sauce for about 20 minutes.) Spray frying pan with oil and allow to heat. Cook tofu or other protein until as crispy as desired. Assemble sandwich with remaining ingredients and eat!

Total calories per serving: 255 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 30 grams Protein: 18 grams
Sodium: 735 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Above calculated using extra-firm tofu and mustard.

Nancy Berkoff is the Food Service Advisor for The Vegetarian Resource Group and author of Vegan in Volume.